Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has revolutionised the world of martial arts over the past 15 years. It was developed and
brought to the world by the Brazilian family, the Gracie’s. In the 1920’s, Carlos Gracie was taught Jiu-Jitsu by Mitsuyo Maeda, who was one of Judo’s founding father, Kano Jigoro, top exponents. After training for a few years, Carlos taught his brothers. Between them they modified the techniques they had learned, progressively leading the family towards gaining local notoriety. This infamy was further developed by issuing challenges to anyone who wished to test themselves against the Gracie’s fighting system.
One standout in the family was Helio. As a frail young man, Helio used to watch his brothers training, confined to the sidelines due to ill health. One day, a student turned up at the academy to train with Carlos, who was not there. Helio offered to teach the student, who accepted. Such was Helio’s understanding of the concepts, that when Carlos arrived he asked if he could continue training with Helio. Helio was well respected as an instructor and was regarded as the ‘technical’ fighter compared to his more physical brother Carlos. Helio taught BJJ to his son’s and following their success in Brazil, several members of the family set their sights on the U.S. during the 80’s.
Rolls Gracie is regarded by many as one of the greatest influences on the development of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. A true pioneer. Rolls is often referred to as the ‘father of modern Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’ and was the teacher of Rickson Gracie, Carlos Gracie Jr., Royler Gracie and Romero “Jacare” Cavalcanti. Just about every Gracie that practices the family art can remember where they were on June 6, 1982 when they heard that Rolls had died at the young age of 31, as the result of a hang gliding accident.
Son of Carlos Gracie, Rolls was raised by his uncle Helio and began training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu at his academy at an early age. An heir to both Gracie traditions, Rolls took to his jiu-jitsu training with a passion first with Helio and then with Carlson Gracie. At Carlson’s academy, he also began training in Judo but when Rolls was visiting his mother in New York City, he stepped into the greater world of grappling. While there Rolls met wrestling coach Bob Anderson and began training and competing in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling and then later in Sambo, a Russian modification of judo. At this time, much of Brazilian jiu-jitsu was based on Helio’s style of using defensive grappling to sap opponents of energy and then apply submission holds. Carlson had created a more aggressive style more equipped to meet the challenges facing jiu-jitsu fighters in Vale Tudo, and Rolls had soaked up that philosophy of aggression and now paired it with the new techniques he was learning. These experiences helped develop Rolls’ view of what would become ‘Gracie jiu-jitsu’, and not just on techniques in other grappling martial arts. At the time, Brazilian jiu-jitsu did not have any properly organized competitions that would gather the worlds best grapplers on a competitive format on a regular basis. Even at this early point, Rolls believed that high-level competition would greatly benefit the flourishing Brazilian martial art. He appreciated the work ethic and training in wrestling and Rolls brought that attitude to his own training. He would take his students on long runs, push the pace when rolling with opponents and was very aggressive in his pursuit of submissions.
Rolls also did not view jiu-jitsu as a fully developed martial art with no room to grow; he insisted his students train in
judo,wrestling, Sambo and other useful grappling martial arts to expand their horizons. As a result, Rolls was a highly accomplished fighter who took matches and championships very seriously. Helio Gracie, who loved Rolls like a son, disapproved at first of Rolls’ departure from Gracie family traditions, but in time became more accepting of Rolls’ innovative approach as he realized what a positive influence his nephew was becoming. Rolls began teaching with Helio’s blessing and his students’ numbers grew quickly. In 1975, Rolls and several of his students took part in regular ‘matches’ against exponents from other martial arts styles. The Gracie jiu-jitsu style of the 1950s of using the guard to wear down opponents was nowhere to be seen; instead, the jiu-jitsu fighters secure top position through a variety of takedowns, and then quickly advance position and secure submissions in under a minute with flurries of strikes and a very physical control.
Sadly, a hang-gliding accident claimed Rolls’ life in 1982, just as Rolls was in the early stages of teaching—only six men hold the
high honor of being Rolls Gracie Black Belt, amongst them is Romero ‘Jacare’ Cavalcanti (founder of Alliance BJJ) and Mauricio Motta Gomes (father of Roger Gracie and my fist BJJ instructor). While he produced few black belts, Rolls touched many of his students and left a legacy that spans the entire martial art. Rickson Gracie gives a huge amount of credit to Rolls for both developing his skills and fueling his competitive nature. He embraced Rolls’ interdisciplinary training, and in his lifetime Rickson has competed in Sambo and judo and has earned black belts in both judo and Aikido. Rolyer Gracie credits Rolls for instilling in him the deep competitive spirit that would drive him to become one of jiu-jitsu’s first great champions.
Carlos Gracie Jr., a half brother of Rolls, studied under him and while he didn’t receive his black belt from Rolls, the competitive nature left a deep impression on Carlos. After Rolls’ death, he founded the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation, which is the governing body of the largest and most revered competitions including the Mundials, the Pan-Ams and the European Open. He also founded the Gracie Barra Academy, the single-largest chain of jiu-jitsu schools in the world today. Mauricio Motta Gomes would join Carlos Gracie, Jr. at the Gracie Barra Academy in Brazil and would end up marrying Reyla Gracie, one of Helio’s daughters. Mauricio was the first Brazilian to open a BJJ school in Japan,
where he spent three years before he moved to the United Kingdom. Mauricio encouraged his son to not only take up Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but to also take the Gracie name as he considered that, in time, it would prove a very positive move for his son. Mauricio originally taught in Birmingham, at the Old Library in Digbeth – this training venue was far from ideal, apart from having the matted area you could easily mistake the building for being derelict. It was whilst here that I first met him and immediately warmed to his personality and especially his teaching style. After approximately eighteen months, Mauricio moved back to Brazil for a time, before returning to the UK, this time settling in London. Things didn’t go as well as expected and once again he left for Brazil. On his third attempt he returned to Birmingham, setting up residence at the Custard Factory (which was very close to where the first academy had been). After teaching in the UK for a while, he once again left for Brazil, leaving the Birmingham Academy in the capable hands of Braulio Estima.
Mauricio’s son, Roger Gracie, grew up training to compete in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, becoming what is now considered the greatest
living grappler on the planet, having won multiple 10 world BJJ championships in both gi and no-gi grappling, as well as numerous ADCC championships. Roger now lives in London and currently fights MMA and competes in the UFC, as well as having one of the largest and most successful BJJ academies in Europe, with a network of many affiliate clubs. Mauricio visits the London academy as often as his schedule allows and is hugely sought after when in the UK.
The growth of Brazilian jiu-jitsu has been astounding in the three decades since Rolls’ death. Modern sport jiu-jitsu is full of contestants displaying innovative techniques that would likely make Rolls very proud indeed. In November, 1993, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was catapulted into the limelight. Royce Gracie, son of Helio, displayed amazing domination in the first Ultimate Fighting Championship—defeating 3 opponents in one night. Since then BJJ has grown at a phenomenal rate, although fragmenting into different ‘teams’, it has attained a very reputable status. Anybody wishing to learn submission techniques cannot overlook BJJ. Ever evolving, BJJ has incorporated techniques from wrestling, judo, sombo, amongst others. With the BJJ associations running competitions throughout the world, in addition to the submission grappling and mixed martial arts events, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu will continue to grow in popularity and effectiveness. A Black Belt grade in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a much coveted thing. The knowledge and ability required for black belt status attained through effort and hard work.